Artistic roots shape BFA graduate’s career in global security

From sculptor and cabinetmaker to professor and global security expert, Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) alumnus Tom Weis has held many titles since his time at MSU Moorhead.

Today, Weis is an associate professor of industrial design at Rhode Island School of Design, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate-level courses. He's also the co-founder of the Altimeter Design Group, which focuses primarily on global security issues.

BFA in Studio Art

So, how does a person with a BFA find themselves working in global security?

It was a process that started in the twisty halls of MSUM's Center for the Arts. By trying different classes and experimenting with his art, he discovered what was right for him and what wasn't. He was seeing his classmates gravitating toward graphic design, which was a new and exciting career path in the mid-90s. For him, however, a future sitting behind a computer wasn't one that filled him with excitement.

"I knew what made me happy was being in a shop and working hands-on," he says.

He went on to do just that, with an apprenticeship in Maine building traditional wooden boats, followed by working for the sculptor Martin Puryear for a few years in New York. These experiences made him appreciate functional objects, a change from the one-of-kind works of art he was used to. After that, he went on to become a cabinetmaker. After several years working in that trade, he returned to graduate school and received a master's in industrial design.

It wouldn't be until years later, during a conference, that Weis would discover the world of global security.

"I was struck by the conversations," he says. "Together, different disciplines can contribute to making the world safer from different types of threats."

That was 2015. Weis's global security journey has been nonstop since.

Weis explores how design and creativity might work to reduce nuclear threats and raise public awareness about nuclear risk. Weis has gone on to design and facilitate workshops for organizations like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the United Nations. He has also collaborated on projects with officers from the US Army and Navy SEALs.

While this work may seem unexpected for someone with a BFA, Weis feels that his education from MSUM has helped him in the global security space. His BFA taught him dedication to his craft and challenged him to take risks and accept criticism, all aspects that make him successful in his work today.

He is fueled by the fact that he works in two vastly different worlds. One involves the people in the global security landscape, facing uncertainty while trying to find new ways to tackle problems. The other involves helping students learn where they want to apply their creativity. He enjoys helping students on their journey to a career that makes them passionate about their work.

Tom Weis visits MSUM School of Art students
Tom Weis visits MSUM School of Art students.

"Very few people leave school and immediately become a successful artist. It has to become something you love," he says.

While teaching is the main way he touches students' lives, he also recently visited MSUM School of Art students. He fondly remembers the influence visiting alumni had on his college experience. During a time of uncertainty, they provided clarity.

"For me, my parents never went to college. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I had no idea what kind of careers or possibilities there were when it came to doing something creative," he says.

Now, he gets to be that person. While Weis is mainly located on the East Coast, he returned to campus to share his wisdom and jury a student exhibition. Visiting MSUM allowed him to reminisce with old friends, walk through beloved spaces, and, most importantly, share his insights as a working artist with current students.

It's only a matter of time before Tom Weis returns to MSUM and its memorable Center for the Arts. Until then, here's a little advice from the fine-artist-turned-global-security-expert: "To really make it as a creative person, you just have to be focused, you have to be patient, and, sometimes, you have to take the longer path."

Studio Art Degree

Grow as an artist while exploring materials and techniques to prepare for your future career.

Learn more about Studio Art

More Stories from Dragons

View All Dragon Stories